George Wylesol
Can Liberalism Save Itself?

Liberalism is under siege. It is not just a problem for America’s Democratic Party, which once again may face either losing an election to Donald Trump or claiming victory with a bare majority. Around the world, the entire outlook of political liberalism — with its commitments to limited government, personal freedom and the rule of law — is widely seen to be in trouble.

It wasn’t long ago that liberals were proclaiming the “end of history” after their Cold War victory. But for years liberalism has felt perpetually on the brink: challenged by the rise of an authoritarian China, the success of far-right populists and a sense of blockage and stagnation.

Why do liberals find themselves in this position so routinely? Because they haven’t left the Cold War behind. It was in that era when liberals reinvented their ideology, which traces its roots to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution — and reinvented it for the worse. Cold War liberalism was preoccupied by the continuity of liberal government and the management of threats that might disrupt it, the same preoccupations liberals have today. To save themselves, they need to undo the Cold War mistakes that led them to their current impasse and rediscover the emancipatory potential in their creed.

Before the Cold War, President Franklin Roosevelt had demanded the renovation of liberalism in response to the Great Depression, emphasizing that economic turmoil was at the root of tyranny’s appeal. His administration capped more than a century in which liberalism had been promising to unshackle humanity after millenniums of hierarchy — dismantling feudal structures, creating greater opportunities for economic and social mobility (at least for men) and breaking down barriers based on religion and tradition, even if all of these achievements were haunted by racial disparities. At its most visionary, liberalism implied that government’s duty was to help people overcome oppression for the sake of a better future.

Read the full piece in The New York Times.

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